In Focus

Ceremonial lime container (ahumama)

In Indonesia, the chewing of betel nut was once a ubiquitous tradition. Betel can be consumed in many ways, including in conjunction with tobacco to heighten its effects. In Indonesia, a quid commonly consists of a quartered section of an Areca palm seed, mixed with a pinch of gambir (Uncariae ramulus et uncus) and then smeared with just the right amount of slacked lime paste to make it more palatable. These ingredients are wrapped in betel leaf, which is from a vine related to the kava plant and pepper family. This mixture contains alkaloids, and its mild psychoactive properties provide users with a sense of general well-being. Old-timers often say that among its many efficacious effects, chewing betel nut made them healthier, allowing them to work harder, and fended off hunger. It is also used as an astringent and is said to kill parasites.

Beautifully carved, woven, and beaded containers and paraphernalia associated with the ceremonial chewing of betel reflect one's identity, social standing, and level of refinement. The components in betel chewing, particularly the Areaca nut and the betel leaf (bua and malus, respectively, in Tetun), are of deep ritual and philosophical significance to Tetun-speaking peoples. As in other areas, these components are part of the ritual exchanges associated with both marriage and offerings to the ancestors.

Generally, lime containers were crafted from bone, horn, bamboo, or light wood. This particular container was fashioned from white sandalwood. For many centuries, a primary place from which to obtain the wood of this slow-growing tree was the island of Timor. Its aromatic wood has long been prized and figures in the religious practices of the East, in medicines, and in artful creations. During the Age of Discovery, one of the first European visitors to Timor, Duarte Barbosa, wrote in 1518 that "there's an abundance of sandalwood (white) to which Muslims in India and Persia give great value and where much of it is used."[1]

The choice of sandalwood for this container is unusual. Normally, lime containers in this shape are of bamboo or other woods adorned with geometric designs, not a hunkered figure. For traditional peoples, this is a common stance, even a respectful posture, but as a carving convention, a hunkered figure normally connotes an ancestor or a deity. This squatting figure, with its powerful gaze and well-articulated limbs, epitomizes this prototypical form in miniature. It remains unclear whether this well-handled lime container was used daily by its owner, or whether it was a ceremonial item belonging to a ruling family or an heirloom used in some ritual form.

[1] Alpert 2003: 103. See Barbaosa Magalhães, and Dames 1918-21, originally written c. 1518.

Adapted from

Steven G. Alpert, "Ceremonial lime container (ahumama)," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 252-253.